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The Plague of Bribery

June 9, 2013
Saeed Kamali Dehghan
9 min read
The Plague of Bribery

When the time for submitting tax statements arrives, Houshang, an electrician from the Sadeghieh neighborhood, is at peace. Like all other income-earning individuals in Iran, every year in July, all Houshang’s colleagues get busy doing the math on their revenue and expenditures from the previous year, so that their annual tax amount is determined, but Houshang is sure that he “won’t pay a dime to the government for taxes.” Although his income adequately supports his family of four, bribing the tax auditors has led to his exemption from paying taxes for the past ten years.

It doesn’t matter what we call it, “a gift,” “under-the-table,” “tea money,” or even “service fees,” but it could have also happened for you, like Houshang, to pay a bribe or at least be tempted to pay a bribe for dodging a responsibility, or to get the process moving on something, or perhaps to speed up something. The story can be a lot simpler than paying taxes; for example, you may have considered paying a bribe for getting an early appointment with a specialist, or to register your kids in a good school, or even to escape paying a traffic ticket.

Most likely, even if you have not directly experienced the bribery issue, you have witnessed it around you. Years ago, a friend told me how by bribing theNAJA Public Military Service he was able to dodge the compulsory military service and receive a medical exemption. I had an acquaintance who said years ago he bribed a school teacher who enabled him to receive a high school diploma after years. Recently a friend told me that he had to pay a bribe for registering his child’s unusual name with the authorities.

Bribery is one of the most important factors of economic corruption in the world. It is a plague that directly impacts the effectiveness of a country’s economy, and can paralyze it. A decrease in investments by internal and external investors, propagation of poverty, a widening economic class rift, unemployment,decreased quality of welfare, and even death statistics are some of the impacts bribery can directly or through intermediaries inflict on a society. What pushes people to pay or receive bribes?

Houshang has his own reasons for this. “For years I did not accept to fill out the tax forms, until the tax office came after me. The tax auditor was mad because I had not observed the tax deadline, and in the end, he determined an exorbitant tax amount which I really didn’t want to pay. I mean, why should I pour a huge sum of money into the government’s pocket? So I started begging and in the end I offered “a gift” so that they would include me in the tax exemption.” Houshang’s offer was accepted.

The “gift” or the money Houshang paid for tax evasion, is the code name for “bribe.” He makes about 15 million Toman annually, and he should not normally be exempted. According to the Table of Salary and Wages Tax Exemption published on Fars News Agency Website in March 2013, people who make more than 6.8 million Toman per year must pay taxes.

“What facilities has the government allocated to me for which I should have to pay taxes? Weren’t they supposed to bring the oil money to our food spreads? Now I have to pay taxes, too? Instead of putting my money in the government’s pocket, I will put it in my own pocket,” Houshang says.

In Iran, though bribery is a common plague, people are not readily willing to admit that they have given someone an illegal gift in return for personal or group gain. Among people who have paid bribes or those who have received them, only the first group are willing to talk about it and you can seldom find anyone who admits even to his close friends and kin that he has accepted a bribe. While writing this article, I was unable to find anyone to talk about his experiences accepting bribes from others.

“Some people are not honest with themselves to admit that they have paid bribes. It may be for religious or moral reasons. They change its name. And some, for example, think that the one who accepted the bribe is at fault, not the one offering it. They call it ‘a gift,’ and no matter how much you insist, they would not accept that they have bribed someone. They say ‘we don’t engage in bribery,’ so they make up a word for it, one calls it a ‘gift,’ the other calls it ‘under the table,’ or maybe a ‘service fee.’ At the end of the day, no work has taken place, but they still call it a service fee,” says Mehran, a university student in Tehran.

According to economist Steve Hanke who teaches at Johns Hopkins University, bribery can paralyze a country’s economy, create inflation and increase unemployment; most importantly, it can destroy the work ethics of a society.

Behnoud is an employee of a government office in the Isfahan Province. “Wherever there is a lot of bureaucracy, there is a lot of bribery, too. Even if you don’t really want to do it, to get your work done you have to bribe someone, otherwise you will have to wait forever,” he says.

“Heaven forbid you should have to go to the Municipality. You would be doing the math in your head. ‘Should I wait six months for getting an ordinary permit, or should I bribe someone and get the permit in one week?’ Well, a wise person will not wait six months,” says Behnoud. He holds the government’s ineffective administrative system at fault. “Well, if you are sure that your work will get done in time and that a Municipality or Tax Office staff member is not able to delay your work for any unrelated reason, why would you have to pay a bribe?” he says.

Even so, Behnoud doesn’t hold the government employees singularly responsible. “The truth is that we have to examine the source of this problem. Well, the Municipality employee must not be happy with his salary to engage in this. I mean it’s not like he just wants to get more money. But the problem is that so long as the Municipality employee or any other employee has so much freedom and room to create problems for you, the issue of bribery will remain in force.”

In order to realize the extent of the economic corruption in Iran, take a look at the annual reports of Transparency International. This NGO that works to fight financial corruption worldwide, presents an annual report about how much economic transparency different countries have and groups and compares them based on their Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). According to Transparency International’s report, embezzlement and bribery are the most important factors of financial corruption in government and non-government organizations.

According to Transparency International’s latest report, from among 176 countries, Iran has dropped 13 positions down to 133th place. New Zealand, Denmark, and Finland are the top three countries in the world in terms of their economic transparency, and Afghanistan, North Korea, and Somalia are at thebottom of the list.

In order to confront bribery, the Islamic Republic of Iran has tried to identify and arrest the culprits. In 2002, for example, an Iranian citizen by the name of Shahram Jazayeri was prosecuted on charges of bribing Iranian banking officials in order to make $2.5 billion in profits.

The Iranian laws stipulate harsh sentences for those who offer and those who take bribes. The punishment includes cash fines, flogging, and long prison terms. For example, in addition to having to pay cash fines in excess of $100 million, Mr. Jazayeri was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Five years ago, the Islamic Republic officials hanged a bribery convict and issued at least three other death sentences for bribery suspects. According to Alireza Jamshidi, the Judiciary spokesperson, the four suspects were employed at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport. Most recently, during an open session of the Iranian Parliament in February, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad played a recording in which the brother of the Speaker of the Parliament seemed to be offering a bribe to Saeed Mortazavi, former Tehran Prosecutor.

Bribery is not limited to large amounts and big transactions. According to Fatemeh, a homemaker, even in the smallest corners of daily life you can see bribery. “We have to bribe the street sweeper in the neighborhood, otherwise he will not clean the area by our house. Every few days, he rings our doorbell and says, ‘Ma’am, don’t forget our tip.’ This is not a tip. If you don’t pay him, you will notice the buildup of fallen leaves and trash in front of your door. A street sweeper is an employee of the Municipality. Why should we tip him?”

Majid, 33, says that his first experience with bribery was when the Traffic Police stopped him on the Tehran road to Caspian Sea, while driving too fast.“The Police car was parked behind a bend and I couldn’t see it. I passed the bend with high speed and he stopped me.”

“When I got out of my car, he talked to me in a way that I thought he was going to send my car to the pound. I had borrowed the car from my father and I was fearful about what to tell him. I begged the police officer. I asked him, ‘Sir, is there nothing else I can do?’ I had never paid a bribe and I was afraid to say something that could trigger a bad reaction. But he said it himself before I had to say it. He said, ‘We can take care of it here, too.’ I went to the car and came back with a 100,000 Toman traveler’s check,” Majid remembers.

Parsa, a London-residing Iranian student who came to England about five years ago, compares the two countries in terms of bribery. “I paid bribes in Iran just like everybody else. But in the four years that I lived here, not once did it occur to me to pay anyone a bribe. I mean it has not happened at all.”

“Here, we don’t have to go to government offices that often. I mean a lot of things get done through the mail, and in fact you don’t know who is taking care of your case. When you interact with an employee or an officer, you feel like government cameras are watching you. It never occurs to you to talk about bribery. It appears that in this country bribery mostly happens in large dimensions, not among ordinary people and in daily life,” Parsa says.

We may have talked a lot about bribery with our friends and family a lot, but we have not thought about its consequences that much. In Turkey, structurallyweak buildings that collapse with the slightest earthquake are referred to as “Bribery Buildings,” because these buildings were allowed construction without minimum safety standards, after municipality employees were bribed. How responsible do you hold the builders and municipality workers for the lost lives after an earthquake? How responsible do you think we are in the number of road accident fatalities, the ineffective administrative structure of the country, and the low quality of social and urban services? 



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